Manhua Modernity:
Chinese Culture and the Pictorial Turn

By John A. Crespi

Reviewed by Paul Bevan

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright April, 2022)

John A. Crespi, Manhua Modernity: Chinese Culture and the Pictorial Turn. Oakland: University of California Press, 2020. xiv + 236 pp., incl. 75 ills. ISBN 9780520309104 (paperback).

I have met John Crespi in person only once. I’ve always thought this a pity, because we work in similar areas and explore the same sort of material in our research. Our one and only meeting took place quite by chance in a reading room in the Shanghai Library more than a decade ago, at a time when scholars from outside China took library research and fieldwork for granted. I’d been told in advance by Michel Hockx that John would be in Shanghai at the same time as me, but I had made no plans to meet him. One afternoon in the library, on seeing what appeared to be an American man holding a copy of Zhongguo manhua (中國漫畫), I immediately guessed that this was John and promptly introduced myself. For both of us, the research into manhua and pictorial magazines that we carried out in Shanghai—on this occasion, and on subsequent visits—eventually resulted in our respective monographs.

In the introduction to his book, Crespi tells the captivating story of how he was introduced to manhua in the mid-1990s through piles of dusty volumes in an underground warehouse, a converted bomb shelter belonging to the “China Bookstore’s Old Periodicals Department” (1). Today, at a time when Chinese historical magazines of all types have become highly sought after as collectables in China and abroad, a story of exciting discovery and acquisition such as this seems like a dream of another age. The magazines John purchased at the time became the basis for his hugely valuable project, the digitization of the magazine Modern Sketch, and related websites at Colgate University and MIT’s Visualizing Culture project.

Crespi tells us that it was his aim in Manhua Modernity to “breach the conceptual walls dividing manhua, magazines, and the modern city,” and in the course of the book he examines representative instances of the relationships among these three areas over a period of four decades, from the 1920s to the 1950s (3). His desire to abandon the terms “cartoon” and “comics” when referring to manhua certainly makes a lot of sense, because English words are woefully inadequate when it comes to describing all that is traditionally collected under the Chinese term. Historically, the word manhua was used to refer to all sorts of contrasting genres and styles, and those who were involved in manhua production worked in a number of different creative areas themselves—for example, Zhang Guangyu 張光宇 as furniture designer and Ye Qianyu 葉淺予 as photographer and fashion designer. Crespi does not deny that manhua themselves are directly linked to cartoons, but, in his view, to have used the word “cartoon” as a blanket term in his book would have diminished the “historically and culturally specific” identity of manhua art (16). He is also right to question the understanding of manhua as “a stable and readily categorizable thing” that fits neatly alongside other pictorial genres such as woodcuts, oil painting, animation, etc. (8). Manhua is much more than that, and when explored in conjunction with “magazines,” “modernity,” and the “modern city,” as Crespi aims to do, provides real insight into how the three areas interacted historically with other aspects of urban life in Shanghai and more broadly in relation to city life and print culture in Europe and the United States.

An important recent study (or collection of studies) that looks at “magazines” and “modernity” in the modern city and beyond is the excellent Women and the Periodical Press in China’s Long Twentieth Century (published in 2018, though not in Crespi’s bibliography).[1] This collective effort among leading scholars in the fields of print culture, literature, and visual culture has done an enormous service for the formulation and promotion of new theoretical approaches to the reading of Chinese magazines. Perhaps such approaches—as seen by Crespi in earlier writings by those involved in this project, including Michel Hockx, Joan Judge, and Barbara Mittler—are what inspired him to look for his own theoretical handle on which to hang his book. How successful he has been in this will be for others to assess in the future, and will be determined by how much his ideas are adopted by both established and upcoming scholars. Much of his theoretical approach concerns the notion of what he describes as the “pictorial turn.” I must confess that on first reading this term in the subtitle to the book, I was a little confused as to what it actually meant, assuming at first it had more to do with a turning point in the history of “pictorial art” than with “pictorial magazines.” My confusion was dispelled upon reading Crespi’s illuminating introduction, which goes on to present the fundamental aim of his book—a relatively short volume that explores ideas of “manhua, magazines and modernity.”

Manhua Modernity is comprised of four chapters, with the addition of an informative introduction and short epilogue. Chapter 1 looks at the Manhua Society (漫畫會) and their magazine Shanghai Sketch (上海漫畫), a ground-breaking publication of the late 1920s that explored various aspects of art, literature, and fashion in Shanghai. In Chapter 2, Crespi skips over the first half of the 1930s to look at wartime manhua with a specific focus on Resistance Sketch (抗戰漫畫). The omission of the earlier 1930s does make some sense, as Crespi has previously addressed this period in a series of influential online essays concerning Modern Sketch (時代漫畫), a magazine published from 1934 to 1937. In Chapter 3, an abrupt shift takes place, from a focus on magazines, to one on manhua as art exhibit. Here, Crespi narrows the focus to look specifically at just one series of manhua from the 1940s, Zhang Guangyu’s Xiyou manji (西遊漫記), a political take on the Journey to the West that was exhibited in a number of venues, beginning shortly after the war with Japan came to an end and before the Civil War began in earnest the following year. In Chapter 4, Crespi explores aspects of what he describes as “one of the most important, but relatively unknown, state-sponsored art periodicals of the 1950s,” Manhua yuekan (漫畫月刊). Crespi sees a “generic lineage” (23) connecting this magazine to the independently published magazines of the 1930s, as both heir to and reinvention of its predecessors. To me, this is the most engaging of the four chapters.

At its most basic level, Crespi’s book is pleasing to look at, with as many as seventy-five illustrations, a good proportion of which are in color. It is well designed and attractively presented by the graphic designers of University of California Press, and crucially, unlike so many academic books in the field, it is reasonably priced. It is even available as an open access book through Luminos.

Despite a tendency to criticize previous studies on manhua, Crespi makes some good arguments in the book. He is no doubt correct to suggest that the areas of pictorial magazines and manhua are under researched, but it is perhaps an exaggeration to assert, as he does, that, “the art of manhua, the publications they appeared in, and the city that spawned both have received little more than passing attention” (3). Crespi’s book is a valuable addition to available studies in the fields of East Asian visual culture, print culture, art, and cartoons—areas that so often seem to be sidelined by grant-giving bodies and academic boards. A focus on specific areas of study that are apparently universally considered to be of more importance to the world we live in today, often get preference, and unless arts and humanities research projects are willing to adapt to fit in with these requirements, they are increasingly seen as superfluous. Despite this trend, it would be nice to think that this worthy book will be an inspiration for others to take the areas of “manhua, magazines and the modern city” more seriously, and thus receive more than just the “passing attention” Crespi has observed them to have attracted up to now.

Paul Bevan
University of Oxford


[1] Michel Hockx, Joan Judge, and Barbara Mittler, eds., Women and the Periodical Press in China’s Long Twentieth Century: A Space of their Own? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).